Yoga & Meditation are as American as Apple Pie, Almost

The CDC - The Centers for Disease Control - conducted a nationwide survey in 2001 and found that 7.5% of Americans have done Yoga (7.1% in the last month) and 10.2% have meditated, 7.6% in the last month. Here is a link to the 2008 research.

“Nonvitamin, nonmineral natural products are the most commonly used CAM therapy among adults. Use has increased for several therapies, including deep breathing exercises, meditation, massage therapy, and yoga. Figure 4 shows the percentage of people using the most common CAM therapies and therapies with significant increases between 2002 and 2007.” - link to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. (CAM is Complementary and Alternative Medicine).

Who You Gonna Call, If You Have a Backache?

The CDC was interested also in what Americans do, who do they call, if they have an ache, or headache, or feel stressed out. Half of Americans interviewed said they thought an alternative approach, such as yoga or meditation, would be interesting to try out.

A new bit of research was just published on how meditation affects cellular metabolism, and how meditating every day helps prevent cellular damage resulting from too much stress. And here is a US News article on meditation as a way to simplify your life.

Vast as the Ocean

The word, Yoga is so rich in meaning as to be vast as the ocean. In general, the word means union, and is cognate with the English words yoke, join, joint, and conjugal. I like connection as a one-word grasp. Look at all 37 definitions below. Yoga is both a universe of theories and a world of practices or practical techniques for joining your individual life with the life of the universe. Over the past thousands of years, the traditions of yoga have evolved many thousands of different schools and flavors of yoga.

T.K.V. Desikachar on Yoga

In a Yoga Journal interview conducted by Diane Anderson, Desikachar was asked, “What do you wish yoga students might experience?”
Desikachar replied,

“My wish is that more students experience the vastness of yoga, not simply asana. Increased attention to the concept of body consciousness has become very popular. Yoga was primarily evolved for inner limbs such as mind, senses, emotions. Unfortunately, many yoga teachers themselves are not aware of these techniques to be able to guide students in these domains. It is my sincere wish that both teachers and students of yoga move beyond their obsession with the body level, to actually experience these subtle and more powerful dimensions of this ancient wisdom. This requires patience and commitment and a serious search to look at oneself.”

Dhyan to Ch’an to Zen

Probably all of the meditation schools in the world have evolved from yoga, even Zen and Tibetan Buddhism. The word zen, for example, is the Japanese version of the Chinese word ch’an, which is how they pronounced the Sanskrit dhyan. Tibetan Buddhism was founded by Tantric adepts from India who carried with them precious teachings they feared would be lost in the shuffle in India.


When I was 18, in 1968, I started doing yoga asanas and pranayama as part of my daily meditation practice. I was stunned by the simple beauty of the asanas, and the way they prepared my body for meditation. I roll out of bed, shower, flow through a series of 12 or so asanas, then pranayama then meditation. Then go surfing. Even so, I still consider myself a total beginner at asana. Being competent as a meditation teacher takes everything I have, every bit of attention I can give. I’ve never been trained as an asana teacher. Asana teachers are potentially good meditation teachers, if they go through the training required.

I have friends who are yoga teachers, and I study with them. My practice is still beginner simple: every day, I simply salute each joint, each muscle, each nerve bundle, and honor all those cells for the part they play in the wholeness of life. My approach to asana is to do that which helps me get ready and tuned for joy, work, love, sex, swimming, surfing, dancing, music, and meditation.

The word, "yoga" means union, and the term encompasses a vast range of technologies for promoting inner union and the feeling of oneness with the universe. The term for postures is asana. Within each word of Sanskrit, by the way, is a world of meaning. Asana has the sense, "staying, abiding." (Judith Lasater on asana.)

A good, straightforward meaning of yoga is connection. The root -yug is used to refer to joining things together, and connection is a handy, versatile English word that does the job.

Yoga also refers to the entire system, theory and practice of how to unify a human being, how to bring about union and harmony within a person, and between the person and the world. Over thousands of years, innumerable schools of yoga have evolved. Each approach to yoga was created to honor the individuality of a particular tribe living on a specific mountain or in a specific valley, with a particular religion and culture and lifestyle.

What I teach, Instinctive Meditation, which I also call Pranava Meditation, is just a small part of the system of Yoga.
Instinctive Meditation focuses on:
Pranayama – exploring the flow of breath as it pertains to meditation.
Pratyahara – exploring the full range of the senses, including the natural ability of the senses to turn inward.
Dharana – exploring the resting spots of attention, the sweet spots where the mind likes to focus with steadiness.
Dhyana – exploring the movement of attention toward the within of things.
Samadhi – exploring the realm of fusion, of becoming one with the essence of life.

From working with thousands of meditators and yogis over the past 42 years, I see that all the limbs are active all the time in meditation. There is never a moment when we are not in the energy field of all our relationships and being impacted by our ethics.

The other aspects of Ashtanga Yoga
Yama – the moral codes of conduct, the do's and don'ts.
Nyama – religious observances,
Asana – posture.

Yama-niyama at Experience Festival:
ahimsa: "Noninjury." Not harming others by thought, word, or deed.
satya: "Truthfulness." Refraining from lying and betraying promises.
asteya: "Nonstealing." Neither stealing, nor coveting nor entering into debt.
brahmacharya: (Sanskrit) "Divine conduct." Controlling lust by remaining celibate when single, leading to faithfulness in marriage.
kshama: (Sanskrit) "Patience." Restraining intolerance with people and impatience with circumstances.
dhriti: "Steadfastness." Overcoming nonperseverance, fear, indecision and changeableness.
daya: "Compassion." Conquering callous, cruel and insensitive feelings toward all beings.
arjava: "Honesty, straightforwardness." Renouncing deception and wrongdoing.
mitahara: "Moderate appetite." Neither eating too much nor consuming meat, fish, fowl or eggs.
shaucha: "Purity." Avoiding impurity in body, mind and speech. -
hri: "Remorse." Being modest and showing shame for misdeeds.
santosha: "Contentment." Seeking joy and serenity in life.
dana: "Giving." Tithing and giving generously without thought of reward.
astikya: (Sanskrit) "Faith." Believing firmly in God, Gods, guru and the path to enlightenment.
Ishvarapujana: "Worship of the Lord." The cultivation of devotion through daily worship and meditation.
siddhanta shravana: "Scriptural listening." Studying the teachings and listening to the wise of one's lineage.
mati: "Cognition." Developing a spiritual will and intellect with the guru's guidance.
vrata: "Sacred vows." Fulfilling religious vows, rules and observances faithfully.
japa: "Recitation." Chanting mantras daily.
tapas: (Sanskrit) "Austerity." Performing sadhana, penance, tapas and sacrifice.

In Sanskrit, the word yoga has a very broad semantic range, 37 definitions in all. Check it out - this is the Monier-Williams entry for yoga.

Think you know what “yoga” means? Here is the full definition of the word, Yoga, as set forth in the Monier-Williams Sanskrit-English Dictionary, page 856:

  1. the act of yoking, joining, attaching harnessing, putting to (of horses)
  2. a yoke, team, vehicle, conveyance
  3. employment, use, application, performance
  4. equipping or arraying (of an army)
  5. fixing (of an arrow on the bow-string)
  6. putting on (of armor)
  7. a remedy, cure
  8. a means, expedient, device, way, manner, method
  9. a supernatural means, charm, incantation, magical art
  10. a trick, strategem, fraud, deceit
  11. undertaking, business, work
  12. acquisition, gain, profit, wealth, property
  13. occasion, opportunity
  14. any junction, union, combination, contact with
  15. to agree, consent, acquiesce in anything
  16. mixing of various materials, mixture
  17. partaking of, possessing
  18. connection, relation
  19. putting together, arrangement, disposition, regular succession
  20. fitting together, fitness, propriety, suitability
  21. exertion, endeavour, zeal, diligence, industry, care, attention, strenuously, assiduously; with all one’s powers, with overflowing zeal
  22. application or concentration of the thoughts, abstract contemplation, meditation, self-concentration, abstract meditation and mental abstraction practised as a system (as taught by Patañjali and called the Yoga philosophy; it is the second of the two Samkhya systems, its chief aim being to teach the means by which the human spirit may attain complete union with isvara or the Supreme Spirit; in the practice of self-concentration it is closely connected with Buddhism)
  23. any simple act or rite conducive to Yoga or abstract meditation
  24. Yoga personified (as the son of Dharma and Kriya)
  25. a follower of the Yoga system
  26. the union of soul with matter
  27. the union of the individual soul with the universal soul
  28. devotion, pious seeking after God
  29. (with jainas) contact or mixing with the outer world
  30. (in astronomy) conjunction, lucky conjuncture, a constellation, asterism (these with the moon are called candra-yogah and are 13 in number; without the moon they're called kha-yogah or nabhasa-yogah)
  31. the leading or principal star of a lunar asterism
  32. of a variable division of time (during which the joint motion in longitude of the sun and moon amounts to 13 degrees 20 minutes; there are 27 such yogas beginning with viskambha and ending with vaidhrti)
  33. (in arithmetic) addition, sum, total
  34. (in grammar) the connection of words together, syntactical dependence of a word, construction
  35. a combined or concentrated grammatical rule or aphorism
  36. the connection of a word with its root, original or etymological meaning
  37. a violator of confidence, spy

Yoga defined in the American Heritage Dictionary online at
This is a very streamlined definition, and reflects the way Americans use the term, not the full definition as it is in Sanskrit, which is more about harnessing the horses and getting ready for war.

1. also Yoga A Hindu discipline aimed at training the consciousness for a state of perfect spiritual insight and tranquillity.
2. A system of exercises practiced as part of this discipline to promote control of the body and mind.

ETYMOLOGY: Hindi, from Sanskrit yoga, union, joining. See yeug-

Indo-European Roots

ENTRY: yeug-
Derivatives include yoke, jugular, adjust, junta, and yoga.
I. Zero-grade form *yug-. 1. Suffixed form *yug-o-.
a. yoke, from Old English geoc, yoke, from Germanic *yukam;
b. jugate, jugular, jugum; conjugate, subjugate, from Latin iugum, yoke;
c. zygo- zygoma, zygote, –zygous; azygous, syzygy, from Greek zugon, yoke, and zugoun, to join;
d. Yuga, from Sanskrit yugam, yoke.

2. Suffixed (superlative) form *yug-isto-. jostle, joust; adjust, juxtapose, juxtaposition, from Latin ixt, close by, perhaps from *iugist (vi), “on a nearby (road).”
3. Nasalized zero-grade form *yu-n-g-. join, joinder, joint, jointure, junction, juncture, junta; adjoin, conjoin, conjugal, conjunct, enjoin, injunction, rejoin, rejoinder, subjoin, from Latin iungere, to join.

II. Suffixed form *yeug-m. zeugma, from Greek zeugma, a bond.
III. Suffixed o-grade form *youg-o-. yoga, from Sanskrit yoga, union. (Pokorny 2. eu- 508.)

The word, syzygy, comes from the same root as yoga.

NOUN: Inflected forms: pl. syz·y·gies
1. Astronomy a. Either of two points in the orbit of a celestial body where the body is in opposition to or in conjunction with the sun. b. Either of two points in the orbit of the moon when the moon lies in a straight line with the sun and Earth. c. The configuration of the sun, the moon, and Earth lying in a straight line. 2. The combining of two feet into a single metrical unit in classical prosody.
ETYMOLOGY: Late Latin szygia, from Greek suzugi, union, from suzugos, paired : sun-, su-, syn- + zugon, yoke; see yeug-

The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2001-05.


(y´g) (KEY) [Skt.,=union], general term for spiritual disciplines in Hinduism, Buddhism, and throughout South Asia that are directed toward attaining higher consciousness and liberation from ignorance, suffering, and rebirth. More specifically it is also the name of one of the six orthodox systems of Hindu philosophy. Both Vedic and Buddhist literature discuss the doctrines of wandering ascetics in ancient India who practiced various kinds of austerities and meditation. The basic text of the Yoga philosophical school, the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali (2d cent. B.C.), is a systematization of one of these older traditions. Contemporary systems of yoga, such as those of Sri Aurobindo Ghose and Sri Chinmoy Ghose, stress that spiritual realization can be attained without the withdrawal from the world characteristic of the older traditions. Yoga is usually practiced under the guidance of a guru, or spiritual guide.

Patañjali divides the practice of yoga into eight stages. Yama, or restraint from vice, and niyama, or observance of purity and virtue, lay the moral foundation for practice and remove the disturbance of uncontrolled desires. Asana, or posture, and pranayama, or breath control, calm the physical body, while pratyahara, or withdrawal of the senses, detaches the mind from the external world. Internal control of consciousness is accomplished in the final three stages: dharana, or concentration, dhyana, or meditation, and samadhi. Through such practices yogis acquire miraculous powers, which must ultimately be renounced to attain the highest state. In samadhi the subject-object distinction and one’s sense of an individual self disappear in a state usually described as one of supreme peace, bliss, and illumination. A common feature of different traditions of yoga is one-pointed concentration on a chosen object, whether a part of the body, the breath, a mantra, a diagram, a deity, or an idea.
Hindu tradition in general recognizes three main kinds of yoga: jnana yoga, the path of realization and wisdom, bhakti yoga, the path of love and devotion to a personal God, and karma yoga, the path of selfless action. Other classifications exist. Patañjali’s yoga is known as raja, or “royal,” yoga. Hatha yoga, which stresses physical control and postures, is widely practiced in the West. Kundalini yoga, especially associated with Tantra, is based on the physiology of the “subtle body,” according to which seven major centers of psychic energy, called chakras, are located along the spinal column, with the kundalini, or “coiled” energy in latent form, located at the base of the spine. When the kundalini is activated by yogic methods, it ascends the spine through the main subtle artery of the sushumna, “opening” each chakra in turn. When the kundalini reaches the topmost chakra in the brain, samadhi is attained.

See S. Dasgupta, Yoga as Philosophy and Religion (1924, repr. 1973); I. K. Taimni, The Science of Yoga (1967); E. Wood, Yoga (1967); M. Eliade, Yoga (1969); P. Sinha, Yoga (1970); J. Varenne, Yoga and the Hindu Tradition (1976).

I don't talk much about yama, because most of the people that come to work with me are too ethical, if anything. The last thing they need from a meditation teacher is to be nagged about ethics. Almost all of my students worry about whether they are good enough.

I don't talk much about niyama, because I feel that it is unethical for a meditation teacher to impose his Hinduism or Pantheism or Whateverism on American students. Over 80% of Americans are Christians, or from Christian families; the other 20% is made up of the various world religions. It is confusing to people to be taught Sunday-school Hinduism instead of meditation. On the other hand, I totally enjoy it when yoga teachers share their enthuasiasm for Ganesh or Shiva, and chant in Sanskrit.

Consider this write-up in a Denver newspaper about a yoga workshop taught by Iyengar, probably the most influential yoga teacher in the world:

"When B.K.S. Iyengar strides into the vast room at the YMCA of the Rockies, clad in white dhoti and kurta, people fall to their knees and kiss his feet. Beaming, he tries to move forward, but each step is blocked by prostrating waves of human gratitude. The aging yogi gets the rock-star treatment throughout his visit to the 10th Annual Yoga Journal Colorado Conference. At 87, this 5-foot barrel-chested cultural icon is considered the world's greatest living yoga teacher, the person most responsible for the tremendous popularity of yoga in America, thanks to seeds he planted in the 1970s. Today, 16.5 million people practice yoga, spending nearly $3 billion each year on classes and products."

In India, it is traditional to kiss the feet of the teacher. In the United States, it is not. This is no reflection on Iyengar – he is just being his own lion self, cheerfully teaching what he is.

I don't teach asana because I feel that is an entire rich field of study in itself, requiring total devotion for many years, both to the traditional teachings of such adepts as Krishnamacharya and Pattabhi Jois, and to the principles of physical therapy. It is really important when undertaking asana to do so in a way that minimizes yoga injuries – the poses can set you up to be injured, believe it or not.

I have a feeling that in the future, yoga teachers are going to be the most innovative and interesting meditation teachers, if only they can forget about using the Yoga Sutras as a teaching manual.

By the way, Yoga Journal has a wonderful article online, by Fernando Ruiz, about Krishnamacharya's Legacy. It's a must-read:

"Whether you practice the dynamic series of Pattabhi Jois, the refined alignments of B.K.S. Iyengar, the classical postures of Indra Devi, or the customized vinyasa of Viniyoga, your practice stems from one source: a five-foot, two-inch Brahmin born more than one hundred years ago in a small South Indian village.

"He never crossed an ocean, but Krishnamacharya's yoga has spread through Europe, Asia, and the Americas. Today it's difficult to find an asana tradition he hasn't influenced. Even if you learned from a yogi now outside the traditions associated with Krishnamacharya, there's a good chance your teacher trained in the Iyengar, Ashtanga, or Viniyoga lineages before developing another style. Rodney Yee, for instance, who appears in many popular videos, studied with Iyengar. Richard Hittleman, a well-known TV yogi of the 1970s, trained with Devi. Other teachers have borrowed from several Krishnamacharya-based styles, creating unique approaches such as Ganga White's White Lotus Yoga and Manny Finger's ISHTA Yoga. Most teachers, even from styles not directly linked to Krishnamacharya—Sivananda Yoga and Bikram Yoga, for example—have been influenced by some aspect of Krishnamacharya's teachings.

"Many of his contributions have been so thoroughly integrated into the fabric of yoga that their source has been forgotten. It's been said that he's responsible for the modern emphasis on Sirsasana (Headstand) and Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand). He was a pioneer in refining postures, sequencing them optimally, and ascribing therapeutic value to specific asanas. By combining pranayama and asana, he made the postures an integral part of meditation instead of just a step leading toward it.

"In fact, Krishnamacharya's influence can be seen most clearly in the emphasis on asana practice that's become the signature of yoga today. Probably no yogi before him developed the physical practices so deliberately. In the process, he transformed hatha—once an obscure backwater of yoga—into its central current. Yoga's resurgence in India owes a great deal to his countless lecture tours and demonstrations during the 1930s, and his four most famous disciples—Jois, Iyengar, Devi, and Krishnamacharya's son, T.K.V. Desikachar—played a huge role in popularizing yoga in the West."

– Fernando Ruiz in Yoga Journal.

YouTube video of Krisnamacharya doing asana, from a 1938 newsreel:

The Dynamism of American Yoga

To my delight and surprise, the asana-emphasizing yoga teachers have emerged over the last 15 or 20 years as the real creative energy in American adaptation of yoga and meditation. I know yoga teachers in Los Angeles, San Diego, the Midwest, and the East Coast. I am blown away by the quality of their teachings and the way they are innovating, refining, and going for it. My hunch is that yoga teachers, dancers and bodyworkers are the future of meditation in America.

It is interesting to note that yoga asana is visible. You can see people move into the asanas. You can see what their body is doing. You can see x-rays of bones, and look at books of anatomy. You can buy a skeleton T-shirt. Meditation can be thought of as invisible inner asana, flow of asanas in the inner world. How do you instruct someone in an invisible practice? How do you "correct" their approach?

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The muscles and bones of the human body are visible. You can see them and feel them. X-rays can see though the body into the bones. Other imaging techniques can see soft tissue.

But no one has ever seen an "ego." You can't see one in an x-ray. If you could see one, there would be less derogatory talk about it: ego means "I" or "I-ness" (Sanksrit aham, "I", + kara, "that which manifests or affirms," ahamkara) and is the sense of identity. Identity in action is beautiful – it is what makes individuality, and is the opposite of being a clone. For practical purposes, you can think of ego as the subtle, invisible connective tissue relating the senses, the muscles, the body in general, the brain, and the ecology around the person. Identity is the sense of "this is me," this world within my skin, and also, "this is my relationship to everyone and everything else, the world outside my skin."

You can't photograph or x-ray prana flowing in the body during meditation. There isn't much of a visible sign of what someone is thinking and doing inside when they have their eyes closed. This may be one reason meditation teachers are so skittish and superstitious – they are afraid they don't really know what they are doing. And lacking much of a skill set for describing and teaching meditation, they fall back on "tradition." They just teach the way thing were taught thousands of years ago. Sort of.

Meditation is a bit too invisible to invoke the kind of brilliant innovation that yoga asana has. Everyone seems afraid to talk about meditation as technique. There is a fear of getting creative, and an over-emphasis on tradition. By contrast with yoga teachers, meditation in America has been stuck in the doldrums, contemplating its navel. Meditation teachers are tending to act like religious preachers. During the 1960's, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi did brilliant work in developing meditation technique and methods of teaching meditation. There is a level of skill in the teachings of Transcendental Meditation that is not evident in any other system I am aware of. But then progress ground to a halt as the TM organization turned into a fossil record of itself.

Krishnamacharya and his son, Desikachar, developed ways of adapting yoga asana to the needs of each individual student. And so, in spite of the fact that there is such a wealth of standardized yoga asana, there is a tradition of adapting and innovating. Because once you start perceiving individuals as individuals, you open the doors of perception to where asana comes from in the first place – the creative impulse of the body responding to the world.

As yoga teachers take this kind of "perception of individuality" into the realm of meditation, I think they will come up with skillful ways of teaching dhyana to Westerners.

American Yoga=Women

When I started doing yoga and meditation in 1968, the groups were about 65% women, and most of the teachers were men. This rapidly changed, and more and more women became teachers. Over the past 40 some years, the percentage of women has increased, both as students and teachers. It is now common in the area of Los Angeles where I live for most of the teachers in a yoga center to be female, and 90 % of the students.

I think this is great. Yoga has become a field of tremendous creativity and innovation for women. I wonder what is going to happen over the next hundred years with The Yoga Sutras, which is a marvelous text, absolutely brilliant, but not intended for either women or householders.

“By purification arises disgust for one’s own body and for contact with other bodies. Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 2:40-41

Click here for a live Google search on disgust for one’s body. Almost all the hits are for The Yoga Sutras.

You may think, “Oh, this won’t apply to me, that is just something Patanjali said. I can pick and choose within the Sutras.” The problem is, these texts are magical, they seep into your pores like a medication. The things you try to ignore hit your blind side and affect you even more deeply. And the purpose of the medication is to make you disgusted with your body and with contact with other bodies, which in turn is to help you become a renouncer, a person who abandons their home, family, friends, and business and goes off to surrender to a guru. Probably right now your denial system is kicking in, “Say it ain’t so!” That’s fine. Go and try to make The Yoga Sutras work for you. Good luck with that. But some day, ask yourself, “Was this text intended for someone like me?” If the answer is no, then start to work your recovery from the damage you just did to your inner life by internalizing a teaching that was never meant for you.

The yoga world has a high percentage of women with eating disorders and body image disorders, and when they read Patanjali 2:40-41 it really rings a bell.

My guess is that if Patanjali were alive today, he would completely rewrite the Yoga Sutras. He’d take one look a modern woman walking out of a yoga class, cell phone in hand, organizing to pick up the kids, arrange dinner, meanwhile talking with her friends and running two businesses, and he’d say, “These women are many-armed goddesses, queens in their own domains. I have to completely reinvent yoga. There have to be sutras about juggling, bonding, communion with friends, and how to be a yogi who has children.”

If you are a woman, you might think about reading Meditation Secrets for Women, based on the experiences of women who thrive in meditation. It was written by my wife, Camille, and I, working together.